- Name: Vanessa Bagdasarian
- Age: 29
- Job Title: Associate Producer of Alvin and the Chipmunks
- Job Description: Oversee production and voice actor in the new Nickelodeon television series.
- Location: Santa Barbara, CA
Tell me about the path that led you to where you are today.
I’ve always been incredibly interested in acting, writing, and producing but I never really thought that I could do all of those things in one career. I studied screenwriting and film production in college so I knew this was something that I wanted to pursue. I got into Alvin and the Chipmunks because my grandfather created the franchise in the 1950s and then my parents took it over in the ‘80s and then I got roped into it. I didn’t really expect that it would be something I would do as a career for the rest of my life but I just totally fell in love with it.
What was is like growing up on the set of such an iconic production?
Well, I think this is true for everybody: you don’t ever think what your parents do is cool. I was definitely no exception to that. I didn’t think the chipmunks were that exciting or cool. I didn’t really have any reference to how amazing it was. After my grandfather stopped making the shows and music, it took my parents years and years of incredibly hard work and perseverance to get the chipmunks back off the ground because people thought that the franchise was dead.
When I was growing up I would go into the recording studio and they would let me play around and do voices. I had no idea what a cool opportunity that was until I was older. They didn’t start doing the movies with Fox until I was in college so I took time off to be a part of those and really just stayed on board ever since.
How has the program evolved with each generation? Are you taking it over now?
Well I work really closely with my parents and they are still the head of it. They’ve allowed me, and now my brother, to become incredibly involved. We are definitely given opportunities that we probably wouldn’t get if we worked with another studio or production company. You basically have to start in the mailroom at these other places and here my parents trust our judgment and our taste enough to let us write shows and do voices and add our input to every aspect of the production, which is really rare and very cool.
Tell me more about your role with the new show.
My official title is the Associate Producer of the TV Series. But I also do the voice of Eleanor who is one of the main chipette characters, as well as some of the other ancillary characters. Then I work on writing some of the episodes. I’m in charge of all the CGI assets that we create and also when we design any props, backgrounds, or new characters. We are such a small company so I get to do a little bit of everything, which is an incredible learning experience.
How do the cartoons work? Are you putting down voice tracks first then having animators create their work to fit the recording or is it the opposite?
The process works like this: We will come up with a storyline — a rough idea that we think has potential to be an entertaining, funny episode. Then we will write an outline to figure out where the story is going. Then we write the script and that goes through a couple iterations. And then we record the whole show and each one contains a 1-minute original song. Then the audio and the script goes to a storyboard artist who makes a frame-by-frame drawing of what the animation is ideally going to look like. The storyboard is incredibly important because it’s basically a flipbook — if you were to flip the pages it would almost animate. Then when the storyboard is where we want it to be, we send that over to Technicolor in India and they animate it. Then we get various iterations of animations. First we get something called a “layout” which is very, very rough and not a fluid animation but you can see the set up and basic expressions. With the layout, you can say things like “Hm, Alvin should be more upset when he gives this line — lets give him more of an angry expression” or “Theodore should be more hurt with this line.” Then we get a more fluid animation path back with our notes incorporated. Finally we get something called a “comp,” which a finished animation and that will then get scored for the music.
Wow, that’s a process.
Yes, definitely a process. We have 104 episodes that are going to be airing so just think of that 104 times. It’s kind of daunting.
I saw that Justin Long is playing Alvin in the latest Fox movie. What goes into casting the right voice?
Well Alvin has that sort of dare devil, mischievous, always getting into trouble but with a heart of gold personality – Justin is very much like that. He’s also an incredibly funny person. He’ll ad lib dialogue a lot of the time and come up with new material that wasn’t even in the script.
For the voice talent you have to get somebody who totally captures the essence of the character, which can be hard since these characters have been around since the ‘50s and my parents are very protective, almost parental figures, of the chipmunks. It’s very important that whoever is going to play that role really understands it, especially with Alvin. Alvin is never a punk or malicious. He’s getting into trouble but it’s never coming from a bad place. You can’t have a voice artist who doesn’t understand that because kids don’t relate to someone who plays Alvin as punky and annoying.
What’s interesting with the new TV series is that my parents and I are going back to doing the voices. So while we don’t have an A-list cast for the TV series, we do have the voices that have been familiar with the characters for generations.
So it’s more about knowing the character’s personality than having a specific tone in your voice?
Definitely. I mean your tone can be manipulated. You wouldn’t think the character I play sounds just like me. What happens in the recording process that makes it really challenging is that we have to speak in half speed. You talk with all of the enthusiasm and passion but you have to do it slowly and then it gets sped up to give that high chipmunk sound.
That must be challenging to act in half speed.
It is. You really have to get it that extra boost when you record. You feel like you sound ridiculous but when you hear it back as a chipmunk, it’s brilliant.
Is the focus more on producing an entertaining show or an educational one?
One thing that is so interesting about children’s shows is that a lot of times people will write down to kids. They don’t expect that children will understand a more sophisticated humor. I think people underestimate the kid audience. They think, “Oh they’ll like it because of a fart joke or because of this prank.” But when I was little all of the shows and movies I loved were a little bit more sophisticated — the humor was smarter and geared toward an older audience. Even though our key demographic is family-friendly ages 2-11, we always want to make it a show that parents can enjoy watching with their kids, and the older kids won’t be embarrassed to watch with their younger siblings. You don’t want them to feel like you are preaching to them or making it a show with a very firm lesson. You want them to learn without even realizing it. That’s what we are trying to do with this new series.
How do you come up with the theme for each show? Do they follow a storyline?
It’s not a running show where you have to see the episode before to know what’s going on. They all are free standing episodes. They tackle everything from bullying — in a very fun and entertaining way — not that bullying is fun and entertaining, but we come at it at an angle where kids are learning while also experiencing something that they may relate to in their own life. We talk about feeling left out and sibling rivalry — all those key things that kids go through at different ages. But we do it with humor and heart and hopefully in a way where kids feel like they aren’t just watching cartoons, but they are watching their peers.
Describe a normal day at work.
Every day is totally different. One day could involve us all sitting around the table reviewing a script and bouncing dialogue off one another. We could go from there and do an hour in the recording studio. Then come down and review animation and look at new stories that have come in from the French company that we work with. Then the movie with Fox is keeping me busy as well.
What is the best part of your job? What excites you the most?
There’s so much I love about this job. I love that at the end of the day you have something tangible that you made. That’s such a rewarding feeling because with a lot of jobs you don’t really have something physical to show at the end of it. I love how collaborative it is. I love that it really is about everyone bringing their ideas to the table and bouncing ideas off one another. I also love hearing back from fans and people who said they got to watch the show with their kids and they loved it and learned so much. It’s rewarding on a daily basis, which is very exciting and it’s cool to see something that you’re so passionate about affect other people in such a positive way.
What aspects of your job do you dislike? What is the biggest sacrifice that you’ve had to make?
I miss out on a lot of things because of our busy production schedule. I don’t get to travel very much and I miss out on birthdays and weddings. I’m a people pleaser at the core so it is really hard for me when I feel like I’m letting people down. You want to be able to be at everything but I know I’ll never be able to make a birthday party at 4 o’clock on a Thursday. I think the schedule being as tense as it is makes it challenging sometimes.
Out of the Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, which chipmunk do you most relate to?
One of the things I love so much about the characters is that they are so dimensional and I can relate to different parts of all of them. I definitely have Simon’s sarcasm and the overall wanting to do the right thing. Theodore is incredibly sweet and I like to think of myself as kind. And then I have Alvin’s sassiness.
Question from the last interviewee. In relationships, are you a gardener or a flower?
I think you have to be a little bit of both for any relationship to succeed. I definitely invest a ton into my relationships with friends, family, and my husband. I think that it’s so important that you put in the time and the effort, but I also need to feel that reciprocated. I invest a lot but I also expect a lot out of all of my relationships because they mean the world to me.
What one question do you want the next interviewee on People With Cool Jobs to answer? (You can ask anything!)
If you weren’t pursuing the career that you’re in, what other job could you see yourself doing and doing well?